After three years and four months as Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States, Nathalie Cely Suárez is leaving Washington at the end of March — satisfied that she helped bring bilateral ties back from the abyss.
“Our relations are vibrant, with lots of potential,” she said, optimistically. “We are at a level we haven’t experienced in a long time. I’m really glad we’ve overcome the hurdles.”
Overcome may be a bit of a stretch, but those hurdles were pretty high when Cely, 49, arrived here in January 2012 at the behest of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.
Correa, a leftist who’s been in power since January 2007, is a popular figure back home but a perennial thorn in Washington’s side. Despite periodic hiccups in the bilateral relationship, the United States has learned to live with the fiery Ecuadorian leader, who’s been accused of authoritarianism but has also dramatically slashed poverty and unemployment in his nation of 15 million.
Cely has also ridden out the storm, becoming a popular, outspoken ambassador despite Quito’s less-than-friendly ties with Washington. She maintains an active Twitter account with 61,000 followers and hasn’t been shy about defending Correa’s government to local think tanks and media (she was profiled on the July 2013 cover of The Washington Diplomat).
Correa himself is a fervent proponent of social media. He recently grabbed headlines for taking his online haters to task, publicly naming and shaming people who’d written abusive comments about him on Facebook and Twitter — i.e. trolling the trolls.
Correa has come under frequent criticism for clamping down on free speech. One of his detractors is Adam Namm, the U.S. ambassador in Quito, who says his government has restricted press freedoms, limited private media ownership and silenced the opposition.
Despite the friction, Namm’s counterpart in Washington lavishes praise on a diplomat who was openly accused by her president of meddling in Ecuador’s internal affairs — but who has also earned plaudits for his approachable style.
“Adam Namm is a great ambassador. He’s a very candid person, and he’s part of the rebuilding of this trust. It wasn’t easy for me in the beginning, nor for him,” Cely said. “Little by little, Ambassador Namm has built a very important relationship in Ecuador.”
Namm, who plays in a blues band, had his work cut out for him after a series of expulsions in 2011. The fracas started when Heather Hodges, the U.S. ambassador to Quito, was expelled after WikiLeaks released a secret diplomatic cable in which Hodges accused Correa of appointing an official to command Ecuador’s national police force even though he knew that official was corrupt. In response, Ecuador’s man here, Luis Gallegos, was declared persona non grata by the State Department and given 72 hours to leave the country.
“The United States did not have an ambassador in Ecuador for a year, and we didn’t have one here,” Cely told The Washington Diplomat one recent Sunday during an interview at her official residence on Bancroft Place.
Despite the eventual return of ambassadors to both capitals, WikiLeaks remains a sore spot in bilateral ties. The anti-secrecy group’s founder, Julian Assange, has been holed up at Ecuador’s embassy in London for nearly three years now to avoid extradition to Sweden. Prosecutors want to question him about allegations of rape and sexual molestation, but he fears the case is a ruse to really extradite him to the United States. In 2013, Ecuador granted Assange political asylum, though a round-the-clock police detail stands ready to arrest him if he steps foot outside the embassy. Last month, Swedish prosecutors offered to travel to London to interview Assange, potentially breaking the logjam, though as of press time lawyers had not yet agreed to a meeting.
Besides the ongoing dispute over Assange, Cely said Ecuador was still seething over what it saw as U.S. complicity in a 2008 Colombian government incursion — using missiles with GPS technology — into Ecuadorean territory. Twenty members of the Colombian guerrilla group FARC were killed in the raid, which produced evidence of FARC’s dealings with the governments of both Ecuador and Venezuela.
“That created a lot of distrust,” she said. “From our point of view, there was no justification whatsoever for that attack.”
Yet in the years since then, tensions have cooled down, to the point where, in Cely’s own words, “Ecuador has found its dignity again” and doesn’t feel the need to thumb its nose at Uncle Sam.
“We are now in a different moment, and little by little our government has made efforts to look into the future, rather than in the past,” the ambassador said, noting that more than a million Ecuadoreans currently live in the United States.
Cely, who was born and raised in the Pacific fishing port of Portoviejo, became a high school exchange student in Macedonia, Ohio, in 1983. She returned to U.S. shores nearly two decades later to finish her education, eventually graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with a master’s in public administration. An economist by training, Cely previously served as Ecuador’s coordinating minister of production, employment and competitiveness, and worked on various initiatives to bolster education, health and housing.
The ambassador and her husband, Iván Hernandez, an Ecuador advisor at the World Bank who attended the University of North Carolina, have two sons; one studies at Penn State and the other at the George Washington University.
Despite her obvious affection for the United States, Cely still bristles when Americans lump Ecuador’s Correa with Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.
“It’s an oversimplification of Latin America to put all the ‘bad leftist’ countries in the same basket,” she said. “We have our own economic model, and even though we dearly respect other countries in South America and of course throughout the world, each country is entitled to shape their own future for their own citizens.”
She added that even though Ecuador shares some values with these left-leaning countries — all of which belong to ALBA, a Caracas-based regional alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States — the reality is much more complex.
“I would argue that the economic model Ecuador has implemented is way different than those other countries,” said Cely, who served on former President Jamil Mahuad’s economic team while it was in the process of dollarizing Ecuador’s economy. “We have experienced 10 years of sound growth. The country has modernized in a way that hasn’t happened in centuries.”
Indeed, Ecuador expects to see GDP growth of up to 4 percent and inflation of only 3.2 percent in 2015 — a far cry from 1999, when Ecuador’s economy contracted by 7 percent and inflation topped 60 percent. The following year, then-President Mahuad replaced the worthless sucre with the U.S. dollar as Ecuador’s official currency.
“Oil has played an important role in Ecuador’s economy since the 1960s, but the growth we have experienced in the last 10 years is not related to petroleum,” Cely explained. “More than 50 percent of our revenues used to come from oil; now it’s just one-fourth.”
In fact, Ecuador — the smallest of OPEC’s 12 member countries — is far less dependent on oil revenues than Venezuela, where food shortages and political unrest are on the rise despite that country’s vast petroleum wealth.
While Venezuela’s Chávez squandered his country’s petrodollar bonanza when times were good, leaving his successor, Nicolás Maduro, to scramble for handouts now that world oil prices have fallen by more than half, Correa — an economist educated in the United States and Belgium — wisely cut his country’s budget by 4 percent to about $35 billion, secured a $7.5 billion loan from China to maintain public spending and announced a tax reform that could generate $200 million a year.
“Now our growth has come more from sound internal demand,” said the ambassador. “We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Latin America, at less than 4 percent, and total U.S.-Ecuador bilateral trade is more than $19 billion.
“What’s different about our socialism is that the well-being of our citizens is at the center. We’re trying to find a better balance between markets and the private sector,” Cely said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t believe the private sector is the true engine of growth. Ecuador, in fact, has shown the largest increase in Latin America, according to the Global Competitiveness Report.”
Cely is also quite proud of the fact that AmericasBarometer — a study funded by USAID — ranked Ecuador at the top of South American countries in the percentage of citizens who trust their nation’s judicial system. AmericasBarometer also ranked Ecuador second-best in its evaluation of public safety management and said it was one of only two countries where a majority of citizens approved of the performance of their national police in ensuring security. In addition, Cely noted, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration last year ranked Ecuador as the Western Hemisphere’s second-most productive country in drug seizures.
Yes, times have certainly changed for this oil-exporting country known to the world for Galápagos tortoises, Amazon rainforests, snow-capped volcanoes and Mitad del Mundo, the monument that marks the spot where the Equator crosses the Pan-American Highway.
Tourism is also booming, thanks partially to Ecuador’s use of the dollar as well as the country’s relatively low incidence of violent crime. Ecuador now receives 1.5 million tourists a year (including 260,000 Americans), up from less than 700,000 in 2008. One in four of those tourists visits the Galápagos Islands.
To boost those numbers, Ecuador recently paid a whopping $3.8 million for a TV commercial that aired at halftime during the 2015 Super Bowl. That made it the first foreign government to ever buy ad time to promote itself in such a way.
“We needed some huge event that would put Ecuador on the radar of the Americans,” said Cely. “This was the president’s idea. He thought, why not buy an ad during the Super Bowl?”
The 30-second spot, which ran in selected markets, featured tortoises, waterfalls, rainforests, historic churches and mountain vistas, with the soundtrack playing the Beatles hit “All You Need Is Love” in the background.
“It’s too soon to measure, but a lot of people are talking about it on social media and blogs,” Cely said of the ad, noting that if tourism arrivals rise by even just 1 percent, the ad will have paid for itself. “People loved it — even those who usually have strong opinions against President Correa because they don’t believe the socialist model is the way to go.”
Glitzy tourism promotion ads aside, Correa’s critics are seething at what they see as attempts by an authoritarian president to muzzle the press.
Current legislation to amend Ecuador’s constitution to categorize communications as a “public service” has sparked fierce debate in Quito, with one pundit comparing the amendment to efforts by Stalin and Hitler to use the press as a propaganda tool.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said Correa regularly accuses the press of being corrupt, insults journalists and tears up newspapers in public. In two separate cases he successfully sued the independent daily El Universo and two investigative reporters who wrote a critical book about his brother.
“Rafael Correa has repeatedly used the ‘public service’ argument as pretext to exercise broad regulatory powers over the media and influence news coverage of his government,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “We urge Ecuadorean legislators to modify the proposed constitutional amendment to ensure that it respects international guarantees of freedom of expression.”
Asked about accusations of press censorship, Cely conceded that this is “a highly debated topic,” but “totally denies” that such a thing is going on in her country.
“I don’t blame them,’” she told us. “Journalists tend to worry about journalists not being able to do their job. But the debate is full of vivid, colorful, different opinions. We totally welcome constructive criticism. That’s how you create dialogue. That’s how society builds common goals and common dreams.”
Exactly what constitutes “constructive criticism” is itself debatable, though Cely is quick to blame the “media elite” in Ecuador for distorting the whole issue and Americans for not understanding the nuances of her country.
Interestingly, critics accuse Correa of using U.S. laws to take down content critical of the president posted on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed by Congress in 1998, was intended to combat online piracy but is being exploited by Correa to silence critics on the grounds their posts constitute copyright infringement.
Correa has made no secret of his disgust at those who lash out at him on social media. The president recently warned in his weekly TV appearance that “for every lying tweet they send out, we will send 10,000 that are truthful.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that Cely is also an avid Twitter fan. Since signing up in 2010 she’s sent out close to 30,000 tweets.
“I tweet for various reasons,” she said. “I believe in direct communications, and there’s a lot of advantages in being able to pass your messages to such a large audience. Also, there was so much to debunk about Ecuador that I was using every available means to do just that.”
The ambassador, who’s been a currency trader, head of an educational foundation, vice president of a large bank and now a diplomat, is returning to Quito to resume her post as Ecuador’s coordinating minister of production, employment and competitiveness. She’ll also likely continue to be a staunch defender of the Correa administration.
“Ecuadoreans are not shy,” Cely said of the man who’s led her country for the past eight years. “Everybody is free to say how they feel and have their own opinions. If President Correa is trying to control the press, he’s doing a very lousy job.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.